“Disobedience” Review: Urgent Kisses, God, and Lesbian Spitplay

For the better part of seven months, I referred to the movie Disobedience as “the lesbian spit movie.” It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and all I really knew about it was that one famous Rachel was going to spit in another famous Rachel’s mouth during sex. I was sold — hook, line, and sinker.

Waiting proved difficult, so I bought the novel by Naomi Alderman upon which the movie is based and devoured it while on vacation in Greece. (For the record, there’s no spitting in the book.) At last, April came, and I finally feasted my eyes on the movie I long longed for, which is fitting, because Disobedience brims with irrepressible, sweaty-palmed longing and anticipation.

The famous Rachels in question — Weisz and McAdams — deliver bruising, dynamic performances as Ronit and Esti respectively, two former friends and lovers from the same tiny bubble of a Jewish orthodox community in the London suburbs. Ronit got out, went to New York and redefined herself and her life. Esti stayed, married Ronit’s cousin Dovid, lived life the way she was expected to.

The death of Ronit’s father, the community’s influential leader and rabbi, brings her back to the place and people she left behind. At first, her reunion with Esti is taut and anxious, made melancholy by words left unsaid. When Ronit asks why she didn’t tell her she married Dovid, Esti shrugs. “You disappeared,” she says softly, but McAdams laces her delivery with a chilling, pointed iciness, making it a subtle but slicing accusation rather than a mere statement of fact.

McAdams’ performance throughout is surprising and arresting. Ronit is the kind of person who fills silence, who talks a lot and always speaks her mind, and Weisz has fun with that, a bold and brash contrast to the terse surroundings of Ronit’s past life. Esti is more exacting with her words. Even her simplest, most quiet utterings drip with meaning and hint at more. That’s a tricky performance to pull off, and McAdams does it well, making Esti much more than a tragic character, making it known that she’s more in control of her life than meets the eye.

The build-up to Esti and Ronit’s first kiss is aching. Of course, it isn’t their first kiss at all. Just their first kiss on-screen, their first kiss as adults. But it’s very clear that they’ve done this before, that they are returning to a place they know very well, a familiarity amplified by urgent desire. Somehow, their kisses become more and more urgent as the movie goes on, each one more intense than the last. “Lovesong” by The Cure is the only song other than religious hymns that plays over the course of the film, and its lyrics are on-the-nose but in a way that works. After dancing around it for a bit, Disobedience finally becomes strikingly explicit about Ronit and Esti’s history, making the swift jump from subtext to bold text.

And when their sex scene finally comes, the sex scene I anticipated for so many months, it’s overwhelmingly hot and emotional all at once. It instantly became one of my favorite lesbian sex scenes of all time, the small details like the way Esti kisses Ronit’s hand with an open mouth, the way Ronit pulls off Esti’s sheitel and plays with her hair, elevate the scene, infusing their intimacy with specificity and a tenderness that keeps it from feeling gratuitous.

And folks, I can verify wholeheartedly that the spitting does not disappoint. This, too, they have done before. And it’s that knowing way they cater to each other’s desires that makes it so sexy, so real. They’re exploring each other while revisting simultaneously. Sex with an ex is complicated business, even when it’s good. And Disobedience lives in that beautiful mess of a place. The spitting feels almost like a spiritual ritual.

Religion, after all, isn’t merely a motif in Disobedience. It’s at the core of the story, an indelible part of the film’s narrative fabric and imagery just as its an indelible part of Esti and Ronit’s lives. Their attraction to one another as young girls was immediately classified as disobedience, as a departure from not only what was expected of them but what was right and natural according to the doctrine by which their entire community lives. It’s ironic, then, that Ronit’s father’s devotion to the synagogue was the reason why she and Esti could easily sneak around unnoticed, act on their desires as young girls.

Ronit returns to mourn her father, but it becomes evident that an invisible thread also kept her connected to Esti all these years, eventually tugging them back to one another. After sex, Esti confesses that she used to imagine Ronit in New York, that she kept track of the time difference between them. There’s a deep-rooted sadness there, just as there is when Esti nods in the affirmative when Ronit asks her if she still only fancies women. That small, quiet movement from McAdams conveys so much with so little, and Disobedience truly thrives in its restraint, striking a stunning balance between being explicit about its queer love story but also nuanced and subtle in its complex emotional storytelling.

In short: This gorgeous movie featuring two famous Rachels and lesbian spitplay will probably make you cry. It’s sad throughout but not exactly tragic. The ending, like any good one, is open to interpretation without being wishy-washy. One last urgent, desperate kiss says more than Esti and Ronit can bring themselves to utter. The invisible thread between them persists.


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a Brooklyn-based writer, television critic, and comedian who spends most of her time over-analyzing queer subtext on television, singing "Take Me Or Leave Me" in public places, and assembling cheese platters. She has a cat named after Piper Halliwell from Charmed, and her go-to karaoke song is "Everywhere" by Michelle Branch. Her writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her screaming in all-caps about Kalinda Sharma, Jennifer Lopez, and oysters on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 115 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. i have very mixed feelings about whether i should see this movie if i’m honest. this couldn’t have been more specifically written about me- i’m a jewish lesbian who grew up in a religious community exactly like that. (actually very nearby and i had friends from there as well)
    but its in that exact similarity where i feel there’s no way they could really do justice to the situation and i know i’d spend the entire time picking out just what they did wrong- because they couldn’t have got it right

  2. I‘m not reading the review until I‘ve seen the movie..and I‘m only commenting to ask if anyone could kindly help me out regarding a German release date?
    My google quest has come up empty so far.
    It’s driving me crazy.
    Cray,cray,crazy.

  3. I watched this movie a couple months ago here in Toronto at a special gay film festival event and I must say I too was very excited to watch it! However, I was pretty disappointed in terms of a ‘good’ lesbian movie.
    The sex scene is very underwhelming and lacks passion, fervor and any sense of longing, seemed a bit mechanical. And the spitting scene…it just seemed like a scene created for the male gaze, sorry if any of your are into that but it’s just not sexy, what’s the point really?
    And the reality is the story centres a lot on the religion and lifestyle and their relationship is pretty secondary.
    I love the two Rachel’s so all I can say is watch it but don’t expect it to be the all time best lesbian movie!

    • I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. I do like the cast and there is something beautifully sad about the film. However, the overall story is belabored, the love scene mechanical, and the spit part comes out of left field. I felt it was pointless and for the male gaze. However, it seems there are quite a few women here who are impressed with and excited by such things. Oh well. It’s a “meh” for me.

  4. This is a quote from a heterosexual Rachel Weisz during an interview for the movie. I have decided to stan her forever. Now murder me. A straight woman said this. Ahhhhhhhh!

    “It can just get really boring watching heterosexual people, whether you’re gay or not. (…) particularly when the woman is the object of desire rather than the agent of desire. That’s what we’ve been spoon-fed. Oh, I’m bored of that.”

  5. I did not like the movie very much, but I love this review. I agree with everything you said about both the Rachels — their acting was fantastic, so much below the surface. I sort of felt that they were at their best and so the kissing scenes/sex scene were sometimes quite hot, but very much in spite of themselves. Like, they were doing SO much to make a movie by/somehow mostly about a man/men so much better than it had any right to be. It’s almost like the movie itself wasn’t awful (certainly no worse than tons of straight movies), but the weight of expectation and hope and the feeling that it *could* have been so much better with the exact same actresses, and nearly the same story, just directed by a woman (ideally a Jewish lesbian, but I would also accept just either a Jewish woman or a non-Jewish lesbian).

    I don’t know, I didn’t grow up Orthodox, but I did feel that something about all the religious scenes felt so studied and…dry? Or like, I don’t quite know how to explain it. Both actresses doing a wonderful job with their faces and bodies to try to portray the feeling of being trapped in that world, and all the details were technically right (the wigs and the way the synagogue was set up and so on), and yet it didn’t for one second feel *real* to me. The stakes didn’t feel real. Partly because, how are we supposed to believe that the rules and expectations are so strict and stifling and they just can’t possibly escape them, if the male character does what he does in the synagogue scene (redacted for spoilers). I know that, in general, the weight of rules and expectations weighs on women much more heavily than on men, but still!

    I am just rambling now, but I wish I could properly convey how much I appreciate both Rachels and also this review but also simultaneously say a firm “no thank you please” to this movie!!

    • Oops, this comment is very unclear, lol. In the 3rd & 4th sentences I meant that the scenes were sometimes hot in spite of what the scenes actually were/how they were blocked etc, NOT in spite of the Rachels. I use “they” to mean a lot of things/people here, sorry!

      (Also as long as I am here to write this clarifying comment I will dump a lot more of my feelings here!)

      I saw this tweet and will admit that it summed up my feelings well: https://twitter.com/perryjetaime/status/987364025263710209. Obviously it is not Rachel’s fault for not asking her friends, but the fact that the director storyboarded the scene directly certainly came through for me when watching it. I know we will probably not have a lesbian sex scene in a mainstream movie that feels *completely* free of the male gaze anytime soon, and that we will constantly argue about what feels “real” and what feels “fake.” But still, even the details you picked out in this review seemed a bit off to me — particularly the hand-kiss, which was done very well by the actresses but which I specifically could envision the director telling them to do as an idea of a very ~feminine way of expressing affection. It’s so easy to get into “no one does that,” which of course is never true! But the specific palm kiss is something that I feel like I see ALL THE TIME in lesbian movies, as if it is something that of course women would do.

      I will admit, however, that I watched this with a big group of queer women, who of course were very ready and willing to pick apart the potential issues with it. If I had watched it myself, I probably would have cried a lot!! Instead, we shouted at the screen a lot, especially about the ending.

    • I just saw the film last night in Atlanta Ga where the theater was nothing but lesbians, one lesbian was noticible Jewish. After the film I saw her wipe tears from her face. I wanted to ask her why? I wanted to know what the film meant to her?
      //Honestly, as a Black American lesbian this film was like watching fish in a glass bowl. Like everything seemed like the other review said “unreal” to me. For one, the two Rachel’s struggle to find a place where they could be intimidate was ridiculous … they had just left the privacy of a childhood home where Rachel mcadams kisses the photographer but she backs away. Second, the director for the l-word was a Jewish woman perhaps she could do a better job with this. Thirdly, the hotel in the city seems so out of nowhere like the two women have sex there but did the photographer book the room for the rest of the week as well because Adams took her pregnancy test there too… just seems “unreal”. Also, the spit in mouth was really stupid to me and when it happened the entire theater was like “what?!” …And this is a theater full of lesbians lol. Also the scene felt like Rachel mcadams was performing it literally looked like a monologue her expressions during the sex because the camera stayed her top half only and we never see anyone else till it’s over. Fifth, speaking over over the ending was even more unreal as the photographer seemingly wants to leave in the morning while the sun is shining… I guess she thought nobody would be up which is again unreal because everyone is up especially after the events of the previous day of course the house is up! Another that was off putting was that this movie is marketed as lesbian but most of the sex in the film is heterosexual sex and it’s odd who this supposed lesbian who left the community for nyc is described by the husband he says “did she ask u to come back to nyc with her ? You know that it will be her and her men”. This claim that the photographer has a bunch of men in nyc is sorta believable because she sleeps with a man seconds before she returns home but yet she is marked as a lesbian … I believe the movie wants u to think she is a lesbian (but she has random sex with men).

  6. I’m seeing it tonight, so I will read this tomorrow, but I’m crying already because of all the feelings. I read the book last year, and I’ve been anticipating the movie for so long. As a queer Jewish lady who focuses a lot of the intersections between queerness & Judaism (I work at the LGBTQ dept at a Jewish non-profit full-time), this is so my thing. IT’S HERE!

  7. I have never seen anyone so excited and enthused about a spitting into the mouth scene as Kayla. And the way she makes it sound so errotic. 😂

    So one Rachel actually spat into the other Rachel’s mouth? Like for real? I am already scared for that scene. Lol. I have never seen that on TV or a movie before. Only porn. Lol.

  8. I am both unbelievably jazzed to see this movie and also pre-emptively nauseated at the thought of this spitting thing. Gah! I’m still going to see it, but I will be needing someone to tell me the exact moment when I need to cover my eyes.

    • Please don’t be put off by the spitting. It is not what the critics have described. It’s more like she lets her saliva drop sensually into her mouth. It’s a gorgeous, erotic, heart breaking moment.

  9. Omg! It was so good y’all! A really powerful movie with a lot of layers of performance, as Kayla says. Plus it was super sexy. (And don’t let the spitplay thing stop you if you’re not into that, it was super short, and as someone said above, it’s pretty easy to figure out when it’s gonna happen so you can just look away for a sec.)

    I think the movie did a really good job of building and conveying a taut, restricted, restrictive small world & culture. Artistically awesome, powerful, and an important story to tell. But it honestly (like many queer movies I watch) just made me crave more queer movies where there’s a queer community around and some already-out-and-proud queer characters. This is NOT a criticism of this movie, but the movie is a story of 1) a lesbian women trapped in heteronormative life, trying to decide whether to/ how to get untrapped, and 2) a queer woman who is living free, but hasn’t really explored her queerness —Ronit hasn’t been with another woman during her years in New York and the movie doesn’t have any text to support the idea that she’s connected to a queer community (folks who’ve read the book, fill me in if that’s in there!). I loved this movie and feel it’s unique and uniquely good, but also… we’ve covered these general territories before, if not this specific cultural context.

    I guess I just wanted to share these thoughts because in the next few decades I am depending on YOU, fellow Autostraddle readers, to deliver up to me (and our whole culture) more stories of queerness shining in its own light, whole and real and messy and important even when it’s not built into a context of mostly straight people. 🙂

  10. Please see this movie. I saw it two days ago and I was unbelievably moved. The “spitting” scene is not exactly what you envision..no one spits across the room into her mouth. Most of the male critics have said “she spits into her mouth. Um, nope. It’s more like a longing that’s fulfilled. She allows her saliva to drop sensually, slowly and movingly into Esti’s mouth and Esti takes it in as if she’s been in a desert devoid of feeling. It’s one of the most luminous, raw and honest moments of screen sexuality I have ever seen. It’s a sealing of two souls. I am still shaking from the power of this movie. This was a wonderful review!

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